This was one of the great objections of those who, rightly or wrongly, did not want to hear about remote work: it would make people less productive. Behind this objection there were a number of arguments, some of them totally imaginary and others totally unsound.
An inappropriate trial in laziness!
First easy argument: in remote work people can hide, work less and therefore in the end will be less productive. An argument that flies in the face of all the shared experiences on the subject and, moreover, which my own experience confirms.
In the spirit of intellectual honesty, let’s start with what can go in the direction of this argument. Yes, when a person starts remote work they may tend to lift their foot off the accelerator and take a breather. But this is by no means out of laziness but simply a pendulum effect compared to life at the office. “Alone at last”. “Quiet at last”. So at first we can understand that the first reflex is to savour.
And then let’s admit that initially remote work requires a little adaptation, which means that in the early stages not everyone immediately regains full efficiency.
But this only lasts for a while, because it is also established that the greatest danger with remote work is not that the employee does not do enough, but that he does too much. Because his manager is uncomfortable, does not trust, because the company is not yet in a culture of results, but also because in a context where remote work is not a standardised practice, accepted and practised by all, on which one has a minimum of hindsight, the remote worker feels guilty!
He doesn’t want people to think that because they don’t see him he’s doing less, that he’s not working, so to compensate he’s doing more, even if it means doing too much, and it backfires on him. And it’s easy to get into this negative spiral when you’re at home, when you don’t have to go back home, when no colleague comes to remind you that it’s time to take a break or go home.
In fact, the less one works remotely, the more one savours these moments, the more one works remotely, the more one falls into a culture of results, more responsabilizing and empowering, where, on the contrary, it is no longer possible to hide.
As I’m driving the remote work program in a company where it has been practised in high doses for years and where the switch to forced remote work was done in the blink of an eye without the slightest problem, I can tell you that my main concern in terms of monitoring system is to identify those who do too much and put their health and balance at risk in the long term because the others are immediately identified by their level of “delivery” and I can tell you that these are more than marginal cases.
In fact, a 2019 study showed that while remote workers felt more productive, they experienced a real increase in their workload and working time (link in french). A study carried out before the “Great Confinement” of 2020 but therefore more reliable because it is closer to the practice of remote work in “normal” conditions with normally prepared and trained employees.
Increased individual productivity
In contrast to those who believe that employees are less productive when working remotely, almost all studies show productivity gains. According to a study commissioned by the French government the productivity increase is between 5 and 30%…which leaves room for improvement. But no matter the source, the average increase in productivity is around 15%.
Of course, as often, I allow myself to remain sceptical about the quality of the measurement, but it corresponds to my personal feelings. I think I can gain 2 to 3 hours in remote work but it is true that I have 15 years of regular practice behind me.
But neither should we believe in a miraculous increase in productivity. All the studies carried out before COVID-19 concerned companies that had a real remote work policy and trained employees. It is certain that the outcome of the COVID experience will be quite different, but it will not be the fault of remote work, but that of companies that have confused HR gadgets with production methods and have been content to carry inappropriate or poorly mastered work scenarios remotely. Remote work has to be prepared, managed and supervised.
You also need to know where you put the cursor. Everything seems to prove that from a certain number of days per week it becomes counterproductive. But here again, we are talking about a situation which, in France, until recently, we had little to analyse and which depends on the company, its organisation and the individuals. I don’t think that in the current state of knowledge and practice we can’t draw too hasty consequences in one direction or the other.
On the other hand, one thing is certain: if a crisis such as the one we have experienced were to happen again, but also in the event of social unrest, natural disasters, transport blockages and so on, the ability, for jobs that can be carried out remotely, to switch to controlled and organised remote work is the best way to avoid zero productivity.
But remote work still results in lost productivity
As in all things, one must beware of speeches that are too angelic or too dark. As far as productivity is concerned, it has recently been shown that remote work leads to a 1% loss in productivity! Contradictory with all that I have just said? Not in the least.
And I believe that this decline in productivity is just as real as the increases in productivity I mentioned earlier. And it is not prohibitive.
What the studies do not distinguish is the difference between individual and collective productivity.
It has been a long time (more than 10 years) that we have been talking incessantly about these subjects with my old friend and confrere Luis Suarez. When we were talking about the subject recently on Twitter he reminded me of all the difficulties that companies have always had with what he calls distributed work. Because it is not just about remote work, it is about people working together without being physically in the same place, which has been happening in all large companies for ages.
Individual productivity vs. collective productivity
I think we should even go beyond the concept of distributed work as Luis presents it, but talk about coordinated work. As I was saying when I was talking about cases of collaborative use in remote work, almost everyone can work alone on a task in their own corner, what is difficult is to work together: to coordinate, to make decisions, to be creative. Distributing work is something we know how to do, and making distributed work work is finally a legacy of the industrial era.You cut out the tasks, assign them and that’s it. What we don’t know how to do is how to collaborate and coordinate. We do it badly in the office, we do it so catastrophically at a distance that it’s sometimes as if we don’t do it at all!
I am therefore not surprised that at a distance, and a fortiori the longer the period of remote work, we manage to be both individually more productive and collectively less productive.
The good news is that it’s not prohibitive, but it does impose two things:
- Review all collaborative use cases, adapt them if necessary, practice them without exception (whether in the office or remotely) and ensure that the available technology actually makes them possible.
- We need to update the way in which we manage and lead teams, i.e. both at manager and project leader level.
But this should in no way put off companies that can make substantial savings through remote work: impact on company real estate, on food costs, reimbursement of transport costs, etc. But it is certain that if on the one hand we push to remote work and on the other hand we do not draw the consequences, it can look like a double punishment!
Remote work: Inventing the life that goes with it
I do not think that we will come back against the idea of the possibility of remote work and it will now be impossible, even if everything is not always rosy, to hide behind its disadvantages without considering its benefits.
Then there is the double issue of productivity and quality of life (not to mention suffering) which, in my opinion, does not call for an absolute and definitive answer. It will depend on companies, people, professions and the context, with the question of where you put the cursor each time.
But if the COVID-19 crisis has taught us one thing, it is that remote work must be seen beyond the prism of an HR arrangement, beyond productivity alone, but as a new model of production organization that embraces a multitude of other dimensions.